North Vietnam

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"Hats off to Vietnam"
Trekking through mountain villages near Sapa, North Vietnam

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh is humbled by the people's warmth and beauty while on a walking trip through mountain villages.

We spent our first night in Vietnam in one of Asia’s smartest colonial hotels. After basking in fragrant bubbles in our marble bathroom, we reclined on soft pillows in our kingsize bed, and nibbled pale-skinned mangoes, succulent star-apples and fire-dragon fruit. Three days later, we found ourselves sleeping on a bamboo mat, with a rock-hard pillow, eating food cooked on an open fire, and washing at a cold water tap shared with pigs and chickens. But my husband Guillaume and I agreed that our nights in village houses were the highlight of our trip.

We arrived in the Tonkinese highlands in dense fog and rain. Eerie nothingness enveloped the narrow winding road, as our van bumped over potholes, skidded over deep ruts in the red mud, edged round landslides, and splashed through deep puddles. We passed wobbly motorcyclists, their plastic sandals skimming the mud. Once, round a corner, a boy on a bicycle careered out of control and hit us with a sickening thud. Our driver leapt out, and when he discovered that the lad wasn’t dead, smacked him about the face, yanked his ear, and threw the bike in the ditch.

The drizzle continued as we drove up and up. The prospect of three days’ walking and exploring was daunting - what was the point of discomfort in pea-soup fog? As we checked into our hotel in Sapa, a crash of thunder heralded a heavy downpour. And my apprehension increased with our trekking guide’s first comment: “You are even older than my mother.”

It rained all night, but the next morning we woke to watery sunshine. The air was damp and cool, but the mist had lifted, and a spectacular panorama of mountains had appeared. We climbed into a dilapidated Russian jeep with our guide, three porters and wicker baskets piled with food, and lurched off up a precipitous mountain road, to the start of our trek.

As soon as we started walking, our spirits soared. Astounding views opened up in every direction. On steep mountainsides, narrow paddy fields gleamed in swirling stripes of green and grey, some dry and some flooded. Above the endless curving lines of the terraces, thick, dark forest covered every peak. Far below, a red muddy river snaked between clusters of grey-roofed bamboo houses.

It was the week of the Tet festival, a time when everyone stops work to celebrate the start of spring. All along the gravel track, youngsters from the Black H’Mong ethnic group were parading in their best clothes - the girls in dangling silver earrings, and black embroidered skirts and bodices, with puttees wound below their bare knees; the boys in black baggy trousers, skull caps, tight high-necked jackets, and long sleeveless jerkins with side vents and embroidered sailor collars, with heavy silver necklaces.

“Tet is the mating season,” explained our guide, Son. "Boys and girls are flirting. And soon it will be the wedding season.”

Suddenly we heard thunder. Seconds later the sky darkened, and huge raindrops plopped on to our heads. Son led us to a thatched shack of mud and bamboo, home to a H’Mong family of fifteen. Picking our way past chickens and pigs, we stepped over a lintel on to a rough mud floor, where three tiny women in black embroidered costumes crouched in the gloom, husking cobs of corn. They greeted us with smiles, and carried on working with gnarled fingers, their silver bracelets tinkling. Smoke curled up from a small fire of twigs on the floor, past an assortment of cured animals dangling from the rafters. Under the thatch at the door, three toothless men sheltered from the storm, their black trousers rolled up, and their calves stained blue with indigo dye.

When the rain stopped, we exchanged more nods and smiles, and stepped out into the sparkling mountain air. We walked on, mesmerised by the glittering paddy fields which curved in dizzy, asymmetrical patterns round every hillside, catching the light in a thousand different shades of green and grey. Leaving the land of the Black H’Mong, we reached a village of the Tai ethnic minority, and stopped for lunch at a bamboo house on stilts. A black pot-bellied pig snoozed in the sunshine with its piglets, and chickens pecked among the cabbages. A skinny dog (another source of meat) was tethered to a bamboo pole. A barefooted Tai woman, wearing trousers of shiny black satin, and a leaf-green woven headscarf, beckoned us into a barn-like room where our porters were already squatting by the fire, cooking noodle soup. With difficulty Guillaume and I perched on tiny wooden stools, no more than four inches high, and sipped green tea from tiny bowls, poured from a vast rusty thermos. Seventeen people lived in this house, and the family’s few possessions were poked into the woven walls – a small besom, some scythes, a basket of chopsticks, a comb and a tiny mirror.

While we ate lunch, the old grandfather squatted beside us, his trousers rolled up, his feet bare, and deftly wove a fish trap from strips of bamboo. Elsewhere in Vietnam, farmers harvest two or even three rice crops every year, but in the highlands they only plant one crop, in June. In winter, the men hunt animals in the forest, and fish in the river.

Tet is a fascinating time to visit the mountains. Red and yellow Vietnamese flags fluttered above every house, and through doorways we glimpsed shrines to ancestors, heaped with offerings, joss sticks and peach blossom. Everybody gets one year older at Tet – like thoroughbred horses in the west. Many superstitions surround Tet: ancestors’ tombs must be tended, special food must be eaten, and it is an auspicious time for home improvements. In one village, we watched a family prepare for the forthcoming wedding season by building an extension for their married sons. Everyone was helping – men were hacking stones and loading them on to a buffalo cart; women were digging up a paddy field to make the building plot; boys were chiselling, hammering, and cutting bamboo with a two-man handsaw; and an old man was whittling wooden pegs. In these mountains, most marry at 14 or 15, and brides live with their in-laws. Rural families long for sons, who will care for them in their old age, and dread the birth of girls.

At dusk, we arrived at another Tai village. Open drains, made from bamboo, flowed through narrow alleys between stilted houses. Old women worked spinning wheels in doorways. A small shop displayed plastic sandals, sleeping mats, tin bowls and lengths of hosepipe. Our host family consisted of four generations – 19 people, headed by a 45-year-old patriarch. On the first floor, the ancestral shrine was decorated with peach blossom, bananas, sticky-rice cakes, cellophane-wrapped sweets and some limp balloons. A shiny three-piece suite held pride of place, but the family spent the evening downstairs, sitting on tiny stools round the smouldering logs, an occasional gold tooth glinting in the gloom. Everything in the house was earth-coloured – the mud floor, the big pot of simmering pig-food, the vat for brewing rice wine, the sacks of rice, the walls of woven bamboo, unadorned except for sheets of yellowing newspaper and some tattered school certificates, stuck over the largest gaps. The remains of a pig, killed for Tet, hung over the smoking fire.

That night we slept fitfully on a bamboo mat on a second-floor balcony, our heads rigid on brick-sized blocks. Once I ventured with my torch down the two ladders, past our sleeping porters who sprawled, fully dressed, by the embers of the fire, and across the pitch-black yard to the loo, a primitive arrangement which flowed straight out to the pigs. Back on our mat, I lay awake listening to snores from other sleepers, creaks of the bamboo floor, rain falling on the thatch, pigs grunting, and finally cockerels greeting the dawn.

The next morning, we gave the youngest children colourful envelopes containing crisp new money – which we had learned was a traditional Tet custom – and set off again on our trek. Our route contoured round the steep hillside – much of it deforested - on tracks of sand and gravel, or mud, or roughly paved with stones. Only two motorbikes passed all morning. Sometimes we wobbled along narrow dykes between waterlogged paddy fields, where blue mint-like flowers grew wild, and families of buffalo wallowed. As we approached a Green H’Mong village, more flirting youngsters appeared, these girls wearing turquoise aprons and sashes, with their hair scraped into square green headdresses. Some had circular brown scars on their foreheads – burns caused by the local headache treatment of buffalo horn and herbs. A group of older montagnards staggered about, drunk on rice wine.

In the next valley, we reached the scattered hamlets of the Red Dao ethnic group, whose womenfolk were startling to look at, with eyebrows and crowns plucked like Elizabethan ladies, and extraordinary turbans trimmed with dozens of red tassels, silver coins and tiny bells. Their black trousers and tunics were embroidered with tiny white stitches, and more scarlet pompoms cascaded from sashes and aprons. Broad smiles revealed black lacquered teeth, or mouths full of red betel juice.

That night we stayed with another huge extended family, headed by a grandfather aged 38. Chickens, ducks and pigs wandered among fruit trees, as water gushed through small bamboo water mills. The babies were charmingly kitted out in miniature versions of their mothers’ headdresses, with tiny red pompoms, lucky coins and tinkling bells. At the door, beneath tattered banners of Chinese calligraphy, four generations of daughters-in-law sat, resplendent in red tassels and silver bangles, embroidering tiny white cross-stitches on to black cotton, and occasionally hurling stones at a mangy dog. A group of men sat nearby, sharing a bamboo pipe – an elaborate ritual of inhaling smoke through water.

Inside the cave-like kitchen, huge blackened pots perched on metal poles over the fire on the earth floor. Pig food simmered in one; another contained our supper. Around the room were wooden sleeping platforms, piles of grain, sacks of rice, bundles of sticks and rushes - and a motorbike.

That night on our bamboo mat, we made soft pillows out of our jerseys, and were lulled to sleep by the clanking and whooshing of the water mills.

By the third day of our trek, our clothes were creased and spattered with red mud, but the courting youngsters still looked impeccably clean, from their plastic sandals to their elaborate headdresses. Guillaume and I were just pondering whether western trekkers in tee shirts, walking boots and fleeces would threaten local ethnic traditions, when our guide roars with laughter:

“Three very, very fat trekkers are on the path ahead – even fatter than you.”

Minutes later, three Canadians of perfectly normal proportions appeared, and we suddenly saw ourselves as the small, lithe, beautifully dressed highlanders might – our faces pallid and blubbery, our heads bare and tousled, wearing colourless, ill-fitting, unembroidered clothes.

As the battered army jeep took us back to Sapa, the shadows lengthened, the colours of the rice fields intensified, and the landscape of soft, swirling lines looked achingly beautiful. All along the road, flirting couples were walking together, in their embroidered finery.

First published by the Telegraph

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